William Edward Burghhardt (W.E.B) DuBois (February 23, 1868) was an esteemed African American civil rights activist, historian, sociologist, author, editor, and Pan Africanist. A respected and prolific writer, DuBois authored 22 books, including five novels and three autobiographies as well as helped establish four academic journals. Some of his most prominent works include The Souls of Black Folk, The Negro, Black Reconstruction, and Black Folk, Then and Now. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. profoundly states “history cannot ignore W.E.B. DuBois because history has to reflect truth and Dr. DuBois was a tireless explorer and a gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for the truth about his own people. There were very few scholars who concerned themselves with honest study of the black man and he sought to fill this immense void. The degree to which he succeeded disclosed the great dimensions of the man. (Hynes)”.
Published in 1903, The Souls of Black Folk is considered a cornerstone of African American history and classic work of American literature as well as a seminal work in the history of sociology. An anthology of essays on race, DuBois draws from his own personal experiences to formulate this pioneering epic on the African American experience in American society. The soul consists of sixteen essays inclusive of a Forethought and Afterthought. The opening paragraph in the Forethought epitomizes DuBois’ intentions and premise for his groundbreaking treatise. “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line. I pray you, then, receive my little book in all charity, studying my words with me, forgiving mistake and foible for sake of the faith and passion that is in me, and seeking the grain of truth hidden there (DuBois).”
Soul assesses the progress of the African American race, the obstacles confronting such and future progress at the dawn of the 20th century. Historical and political issues are addressed in the first three chapters. DuBois explores African American life following the Civil War and in particular analyzes the policies of the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction as well as the counterproductive role of Booker T. Washington in terms of promoting racial segregation and material wealth which interferes civic equality and progress. He shares his experiences as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee. DuBois critiques American materialism its negative effects if not properly balanced life-promoting ideals as well as standards of human culture and explores the role of the Talented Tenth or African American elite as liaisons for improving race relations. African American life in the Southern Black Belt has been examined as well the significance of religion on African American experience and the impact of slavery on American morality. Finally, DuBois focuses on racial prejudice’s impact on the individual. The last chapter examines African American spirituals and their personification of the Black experience. DuBois tackles the concepts of African American life under the veil of race and its by-product, “double-consciousness” – viewing self through the eyes of others.
A unique merge of history, sociological data, poetry, song, coupled with his personal experience, Soul asserts DuBois’ vision of why and how to race to pose a dilemma at the onset of the 20th century and the intrinsic quality of the African American experience in relation to American culture. The Soul of Black Folk testifies to biographer David Levering Lewis’s assertion that “in the course of his long, turbulent career, W. E. B. DuBois attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of twentieth-century racism— scholarship, propaganda, integration, national self-determination, human rights, cultural and economic separatism, politics….(Lewis).”
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. A.C. McClurg & Co: Chicago, IL, 1903.
Hynes, Gerald C. “A Biographical Sketch of W.E.B. DuBois.”
Lewis, David Levering, W. E. B. DuBois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-196. Henry Holt and Co.: New York, NY, 2000.